In the make-believe world of the 1963 film The Great Escape, Steve McQueen played a heroic baseball-playing American. While the story of the mass escape from a prisoner of war camp during the Second World War is true, that character never existed at the North Compound of Stalag Luft III. In real life, Canadian officer Bill Paton was the star pitcher on the baseball team at the POW camp, and while the Germans watched them play, the prisoners secretly scattered earth from the tunnels on the ball field.
Flight Lieutenant Paton, who died in Toronto on Oct. 25 at the age of 101, was one of the last Canadian survivors of the Great Escape. The RCAF officer was not one of the 80 men who made it out through the tunnel in the largest Allied prison break in the war. Only three of the escapees, two Norwegians and a Dutch airman made it out of occupied Europe; the rest were recaptured. The Great Escape infuriated Hitler, and he ordered the survivors shot; 50 of them were murdered, six of them Canadian.
There were about 800 Canadians at the camp, and all of them were members of the Escape Committee. Anyone who signed up for sports, baseball hockey or even boxing, was automatically a member. Sporting events distracted the German guards, who loved watching Canadians play sports, especially boxing.
The Great Escape was 11 months in the planning. The camp was for captured Allied airmen, mostly British, Canadian and from other Commonwealth countries, along with a few Americans and those of other nationalities. It was operated by the Luftwaffe, the German air force near Sagan in Silesia, in what was then the southeastern part of Germany; today it is Zagan in Poland.
Ted Barris, a Canadian author who wrote the bestselling book The Great Escape: A Canadian Story, says the Allied airmen were treated relatively well in the camp, in part because the head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goering had been a pilot in the First World War. That gave them the limited freedom they needed to carry out the construction of the escape tunnels. Baseball and other sports were part of the ruse.
“Since plenty of the officers had played international or professional sports, including … Phil Marchildon and Bill Paton, the sports grounds at the North Compound buzzed with tournaments,” Mr. Barris wrote. “But beneath that veneer remained a secret society of officers – about a third of whom were Canadian – intent on breaking out of the camp.”
William Edgar Paton (pronounced PAY-ton) was born in Toronto on July 27, 1918. His father, James, was a printer who specialized in calendars; his mother, the former Josephine Beeny, was a housewife. He grew up on Bastedo Avenue in the east end of Toronto. At Riverdale High School, Mr. Paton was a star pitcher on the baseball team and after graduating he played for semi-professional teams.
“He played semi-pro in the Beaches [a Toronto neighbourhood]. He played there before and after the war,” his son John says.
Mr. Paton joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in August of 1941. Like many volunteers, he wanted to be a pilot, but when the RCAF discovered he was a math whiz, they suggested he become a navigator, since having a quick mind with numbers was essential in plotting flights between England and occupied Europe.
After training in Western Canada, under the Commonwealth Air Training Scheme, Flight Sergeant Paton was sent to England, where he was assigned to 431 Squadron, flying Wellington bombers out of Yorkshire. The Wellington was a twin-engine aircraft, and it was relatively slow compared to the four-engine “heavy” bombers, the Halifax and the Lancaster, which were just arriving in service for Bomber Command.
By the time of his seventh mission, he was a Pilot Officer, the lowest commissioned rank in the RCAF. On the night of April 16, 1943, his Wellington took off from the field in Burn, Yorkshire. It was shot down over Hochspeyer in Rhineland, in the west of Germany. The tail gunner was killed, and the five crew members who survived were taken as prisoners of war.
Plt. Off. Paton landed in a tree and injured his hips, which would bother him for the rest of his life. His immediate problem was an angry German woman whose son had been killed in an Allied bombing raid. She tried to stab the Canadian officer with a pitchfork as he hung by his parachute in the tree. The injuries on his face from landing in the tree can be seen clearly in the photo on his prisoner of war ID card.
Plt. Off. Paton spent 25 months in detention as a prisoner of war. For almost a year, he and the other inmates worked on an elaborate escape plan. The tunnels were known as Tom, Dick and Harry. Some of the prisoners worked digging tunnels, others including Plt. Off. Paton were called “stooges,” charged with security, making sure the tunnels were not discovered. The guards looking for signs of escape were known as “ferrets.”
“The stooges were beating the ferrets at their own game,” Ted Barris wrote. The camp commandant suspected a breakout was coming but did not know how or when.
Then there were “penguins,” whose job it was to disperse the dirt. Plt. Off. Paton was also a penguin, finding ingenious ways of dumping it.
“The biggest problem they had was getting rid of the dirt from the tunnels. They used to have these pants that had pockets, and they would release the earth. Which is why they started playing baseball and football as a way to get rid of the earth on the fields without the Germans really noticing,” says his son John, who spent seven years putting together a book on his father’s war experiences. “I spoke to people in Austria and Poland. One [German] historian, Uwe Benkel, did quite a bit of research on Dad. He even found parts of the plane. We still communicate back and forth.”
On the night of March 24th, 1944, men dressed in civilian disguises, with false identification papers made by a Canadian forger, started to leave through the narrow tunnel. They came out on the other side of the wire. Eighty of them made it out into the woods that surrounded the camp before the escape was discovered. Four were captured right away at the tunnel exit. All but three were captured, and 50 were murdered. On direct orders from Adolf Hitler, their bodies cremated and buried outside the camp.
As the Soviet Red Army closed in on Germany, the prisoners were marched out of the camp in late January, 1945. On Feb. 4, 3,000 prisoners from Stalag Luft III arrived at another camp in Marlag in the west of Germany. British troops liberated Plt. Off. Paton and others just weeks before the end of the war.
“He had to go back to England for a medical checkup and debriefing before he could come home,” his son said. By the time he arrived in England he had been promoted to Flight Lieutenant, the equivalent of Captain in the Army.
After the war, he returned to work at Canada Life, where he became the manager of mortgage services and was a star on the company baseball team. He married Marie Russell in 1948.
Flight Lieutenant Paton continued to be a semi-professional pitcher and was hired by local teams. His son John remembers him planning the family vacation around his baseball games. The family would go to Orillia in time for an annual baseball tournament at Couchiching Park.
“Every morning at the cottage, he would practice pitching, and I would catch. Then he went to the tournament, dressed completely in black, and teams would come up and offer him money to play for them,” John Paton said.
Flight Lieutenant Paton retired when he was 63, and he and his wife spent winters in Florida, in a community called Maple Leaf Estates. Always a great athlete, he took up golf. When he was in his early 80s he “shot his age,” that is, he recorded 80 strokes in an 18 hole game, considered quite an achievement. He scored five holes-in-one.
He was alert until the end of his life, though his wartime hip injury caused him to be in a wheelchair for the last few years.
Flight Lieutenant Paton leaves his wife, Marie; their children, John, Gordon and Beverley; and six grandchildren.